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Interview with Roberta Modugno
The Austrian Economics Newsletter

Winter 1999 Supplement

Roberta Modugno

Between Mises and Keynes:
Rothbard in Italy

An Interview with Roberta Modugno

Professor Modugno teaches political philosophy and political economy at the Center for the Methodology of the Social Sciences at LUISS (Libera Universita Internazioale degli Studi Sociali) in Rome. She is the author of Murray N. Rothbard e il libertarismo amerciano (Rubbettino Editore, Soveria Mannelli, 1998). She was interviewed at the 1998 Austrian Scholars Conference in Auburn, Alabama.

AEN: Does the publication of your book mark the rise of Rothbardian scholarship in Italy?

MODUGNO: I would like to think so, but far more important than my book is the publication of Rothbard's books. The publisher Liberilibri has brought out both The Ethics of Liberty and For a New Liberty, and translations are being prepared of other books as well. Those volumes nicely complement the growing library of classical liberal and Austrian economics books being published by Rubbettino Editore. These include volumes by Ludwig von Mises and Israel Kirzner. Menger and Hayek are also in print.

So the addition of Rothbard to this literature is a natural step. After all, Rothbard develops the logic of market thinking and the ethics of private property to its fullest extent. The purpose of my book is to introduce his thought, explain his worldview and rationale, and argue that Rothbardian-ism represents an important strand in classical liberal thought because it extends the work of Menger and Mises.

None of these existing advances would be happening without the hard work and dedication of Italian scholars like Dario Antiseri, Massimo Baldini, Antonia Martino, Lorenzo Infantino, and Raimondo Cubbedu. They are on the cutting edge of Austrian scholarship in Italy, and working to gain interest in these ideas within the academic community and popular opinion.

AEN: What interested you in Rothbard's extensions of Austrian theory into an overarching theory of liberty?

MODUGNO: His consistency and rigor. Rothbard's theories were being developed in the 1960s, when American politics began to witness the permanence of the welfare state together with increased public spending on military and space programs. He saw that the two sides of modern statism, which were conventionally kept in separate conceptual categories, were really working together against liberty and property rights. Lyndon Johnson called this machinery the Great Society, but Rothbard labeled it the welfare-warfare state, and he saw it as a formidable enemy. Of course, Rothbard was a formidable foe.

The United States pulled out of Vietnam in the first half of the seventies, but looking back, what did it produce? Ten years of national emergency, 55,000 deaths, 300,000 injured, and $110 billion on government spending. And that doesn't count two million Vietnamese deaths. The sheer cost in lives and liberty is shocking, yet economists have been shy about seeing war as a worthy subject of investigation. Rothbard merged Austrian theory with a libertarian theory of the state to produce a theoretical apparatus for understanding the welfare-warfare state, and a program for reversing its course.

As he explained, in the warfare state, we see the fulfillment of Keynesian doctrine: huge amounts of public spending directed by government planners designed to spur economic growth. Kennedy's phrase "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" was really just a poetic justification for the Keynesianized welfare--warfare state. It suggests that people should not demand to be left alone to manage their own affairs; rather, people should be willing to sacrifice their liberty, property, and even lives for the sake of the state's domestic and international interests.

AEN: Do you believe that this backdrop helped shape Rothbardian political economy?

MODUGNO: Carl Menger wrote during the rise of the administrative state. Mises and Hayek dealt with the experiment in full-blown socialism and the growing power of central banks. Rothbard wrote during the rise of the permanent redistributive and expansionist state, justified in the name of democratic politics. All these trends figure into any evaluation of these scholars' contributions.

In Power and Market, Rothbard uses the first chapter to examine the role of protection agencies as an alternative to warfare. That is, he dealt with how a free market would deal with the problem of defending person and property from violent attacks of all sorts. He correctly says that this is the first analysis of the economics of government to argue that no provision of goods or services requires the existence of the state. Further, he says that this was an issue that had to be left in the dark in his prior writings, including Man, Economy, and State.

Rothbard's theories may have developed earlier. But it was against the backdrop of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and the vast losses of the Vietnam war, that they first came into public view. It was this extension of the Austro-libertarian mode of analysis that attracted so many young scholars into a growing intellectual and activist movement that opposed state power in all its forms.

AEN: Yet you think Rothbard's theories have relevance for Italy.

MODUGNO: Perhaps they are even more important for Italians than for Americans. Americans appear to be more jealous of their liberty and more suspicious of government. Americans appear more likely than Italians to resist state encroachments. Political forces in the United States tend toward cutting government, but in Italy, the government is huge and its bureaucracy is imperial, and this has led to terrible human suffering and stagnant economic conditions.

The largest expense of the Italian government is Social Security. Workers pay 32 percent of their salary, which is more than twice what the U.S. worker pays. The problem is that the Italian program seeks to provide 100 percent financial security, which is absurd. My hope is that by drawing attention to Rothbard's comprehensive attack on the state, people will begin to see that they cannot look at the problems of Social Security in isolation. The problems of this program must be seen within a broader context of statism in general.

AEN: What about Rothbard's positive program, a society built purely on private property, that is sometimes called anarcho-capitalism?

MODUGNO: Randall Holcombe wrote an insightful essay which argues that from a practical point of view, it doesn't matter whether a person is willing to travel all the way down that road with Rothbard. You can still learn from him. Everyone realizes that marginal changes have to be made to seek the optimal state of affairs. Also, Rothbard was not just an idealist. He had a very practical program to scale back the state anywhere and everywhere it could be done. So, it is Rothbard's imagination and persuasive power that provides the truly valuable service; he helps us conceive of a purely free society without a state, and by doing so provides an intellectual foundation for the entire movement toward less government.

Rothbard hoped for the immediate abolition of all government intervention, but he also understood that the establishment of liberty will probably, in the end, be a gradual process. Llewellyn Rockwell is right: Rothbard was no utopian. He wanted government limited in any way possible, and worked to make it so. His proposal for a stateless society is a tool that helps us reshape the way we conceive of subjects like liberty and power, property and state. Rothbardian political economy draws the attention of people to the right issues.

This is why I'm not too interested in this old debate of whether there should be a limited state or no state. Right now, we are dealing, for all practical purposes, with an unlimited state. What we need more than anything else is a rigorous theory that brings together the best of Austrian School scholarship with the classical libertarian tradition, and we find that in Rothbard's understanding of the viability of a purely free society.

AEN: Are there other traditions of anti-statist thought alive in Italy?

MODUGNO: For many years, Robert Nozick had been considered the standard bearer of antistatism, and he is very well-known in scholarly circles. Scholars have long set Nozick's idea of the limited state against Rawls's theory of justice and the redistributive state. But we must keep in mind that it was Rothbard who introduced Nozick to the ideas of liberty in the first place. In reality, then, it is better to set Rothbard's theory of justice, based on private property, against Rawls's theory of "fairness" in order to understand the crucial debate. This helps us understand that every appeal to enact policies in the name of "fairness" is also a proposal to violate property rights, which Rothbard saw as the first principle of human rights.

AEN: How much resistance is there to capitalism within Italian academia?

MODUGNO: It is very intense, even after all the evidence of socialism's failure. But younger scholars are increasingly attracted to the Austrian theory. The best of them realize, with Mises, that free markets are the best way to achieve the common good, and, with Hayek, that only markets fulfill the principle of solidarity. With Rothbard, we begin to understand that there can be no human rights without firm attachment to property rights.

AEN: What is your current project?

MODUGNO: In Italian scholarly circles, as well as in the popular press, it is extremely important that traditions of thought, especially radical ones, be considered compatible with religious thought, particularly the social teaching of Catholicism, ancient and modern. I would like to do a thorough investigation of Rothbard's demonstration that the scholasticism of the late middle ages is the foundation for the modern revival of Austrian social science. This is a thesis that could bear fruit in Italy, not because everyone goes to church but because faith is a tradition of thought woven very deeply into Italian culture. To show that the Austrian School represents a fulfillment of scholastic political economy is to show that Italians have a long tradition of respect for free markets that has been artificially suppressed.